The talks between the Guaidó-led opposition and Maduro’s regime ostensibly are designed to consider a peaceful transition of leadership. But dialogues like these have failed in the past — and Venezuela seems to be at a perpetual tipping point. How might change happen? Here’s what you need to know.
Venezuela is steeped in crisis
Inflation is projected to reach 10,000,000 percent in 2019. Basic household items, food and lifesaving medicines are scarce. Nearly 9 percent of the population has fled the country, seeking a better life elsewhere.
A majority of Venezuelans probably want change — though reliable data are difficult to obtain. Change, however, will not be easy. Maduro claims the legacy of Chavismo, named after his wildly popular predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Since the mid-2000s, chavista elites have controlled nearly all government institutions.
The national election board also seems to bend to chavista interests — it delayed state elections in 2017, and many Venezuelans and independent observers denounced Maduro’s 2018 reelection as fraudulent. When the opposition won a supermajority in the National Assembly in 2015, the government stripped the body of its powers.
If elections aren’t the answer, how will change happen in Venezuela? We mapped out a few hypothetical paths forward. Only some of these are likely to lead to democracy — and all seem to indicate a long road ahead before the country’s many crises are resolved.
First, who are the key players?
Maduro became president in 2013, when the wildly popular Hugo Chávez died — but Maduro’s position is weak, and he lacks the charisma of Chávez. Members of his own administration have defected. And he has run the economy into the ground.
The opposition is broad and ideologically diverse — but fails to agree on how to remove Maduro from office. Many leaders are in exile, imprisoned or banned from contesting elections. Guaidó and his mentor, Leopoldo López, a fiery and popular opposition leader who recently escaped house arrest, seem to be at the helm.
The Venezuelan military is also an influential player. And don’t forget the United States, which actively opposes chavismo and has a long history of meddling in Latin America’s domestic affairs; and potentially Russia, which the U.S. claims is backing Maduro.
What might happen now in Venezuela?
Scenario #1. Maintain the status quo: The Maduro regime currently confronts its opponents in a targeted way, arresting opposition figures and stripping legislators of their powers. But it is difficult to see how the status quo is sustainable. Venezuelans are barely scraping by. Given Maduro’s ostensible weakness and an international community broadly supportive of change, one of the following scenarios is likely to unfold.
Scenario #2. Escalated crackdowns: The Maduro regime might decide, as a last-ditch effort to retain control, to indiscriminately arrest opponents, ban public gatherings and respond violently to public dissent.
Political scientists would argue that this coercive approach reduces the probability of democratization in the immediate future. In the longer term, however, the costs of repression may outweigh the benefits, especially with the international community watching, naming and shaming — which can have negative consequences for perceptions of the government’s actions and decreased foreign direct investment.
Scenario #3. Popular uprising, leading to regime change: Guaidó’s April 30 call for a popular uprising failed, but something like this might succeed in the future. If the government engages in widespread and indiscriminate repression (Scenario #2), we could see increased outrage and public backlash resulting in greater anti-regime mobilization in the streets.
Such mobilization could result in the removal of Maduro, as well as other chavistas. Research demonstrates that civil resistance movements can bring about regime change, even under entrenched undemocratic conditions. Much of this analysis also offers reasons to be optimistic regarding prospects for democracy following nonviolent campaigns.
Scenario #4. Maduro’s ouster via negotiated transition: Reform-minded chavistas might decide to coordinate with opposition moderates to create a transitional government that oversees new elections. By some accounts, this scenario was already being negotiated behind Maduro’s back in April. The call by Guaidó and López for a popular uprising on April 30 upended those talks. In May, renewed talks in Norway — this time with the blessing of both Guaidó and Maduro — were, once again, underway.
Scenario #4 typically involves temporary power-sharing arrangements between the opposition and the government. On April 30, Guaidó and López may have sought to jump-start a transition (via Scenario #3) to avoid this negotiated outcome.
Such a move to sidestep broader opposition efforts at dialogue is not unprecedented. López, against the wishes of other opposition leaders, has attempted to force Maduro from power in the past. Guaidó and López may have sought to block Scenario #4 in an effort to control the opposition narrative and strengthen their (own) claim to power.
At any rate, when a negotiated transition leads to the removal of the leader and perhaps his closest associates, democratization seems less likely. For this scenario to promote democracy in Venezuela, chavistas will have to share power or cede it completely.
The military (really) matters
Venezuela’s military will probably play a decisive role in any of these scenarios. Scenarios #1 and #2 depend on a military that stays loyal to the incumbent — Maduro. Conversely, the military may refuse to comply with more repression. In this case, an expedited Scenario #4 could unfold, with members of the military participating in a transitional process. The military could also defect from the regime and actively join the opposition, facilitating Scenario #3.
Military support has been instrumental to the survival of countless authoritarian regimes, including, thus far, Maduro’s. Still, economic collapse has affected the military’s rank and file. Desertions and defections have become increasingly commonplace, even among high-ranking officers. The military’s continued loyalty is, therefore, questionable, making Scenarios #3 or #4 more likely.
Change seems imminent in Venezuela. How change occurs, we suggest, will affect the short- and longer-term prospects for democracy.
Jennifer Cyr is associate professor of political science and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona and author of “The Fates of Political Parties: Institutional Crisis, Continuity, and Change in Latin America” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Jessica Maves Braithwaite is assistant professor of political science at the University of Arizona.